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Donaldson enters guilty plea for alleged role in Bender murder cover-up
Donaldson
Donaldson

The wife of Austin Todd Stryker has entered a negotiated plea of guilty for her alleged role in the cover-up of Lumpkin County 21-year-old Hannah Bender’s 2019 murder.

During a July 29 calendar call, Elizabeth Brooke Donaldson, 24, pleaded guilty to charges of concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence. 

She was sentenced to 12 months of local custody and two years of house arrest for the concealing charge and 10 years of probation for the tampering charge to run concurrent with the first count. 

Donaldson is the wife of Stryker, who was convicted and sentenced last fall for his role in Bender’s killing. Previously, she was accused of allegedly helping move Bender’s remains to a Blacks Mill Road residence on Sept. 16, 2019, and strip interior parts from the truck where Bender was murdered. 

As part of her conditions, Donaldson “shall not refuse to testify, but shall testify fully and as to all circumstances of this case and any related matters,” according to the sentencing document.

She also may not contact members of Hannah Bender’s family or defendants Isaac Thomas Huff, Jerry Harper or Dylan Patrick Reid. 

No judgment of guilt was entered during her hearing, according to the first offender/conditional discharge portion of the sentencing document.

Further proceedings have been deferred, and Donaldson has started her confinement, as evidenced by the Dawson County Sheriff Office’s weekly arrest report. 

If she were to violate probation, or the court were to determine she was actually ineligible for first offender/conditional status, the court may then enter an adjudication of guilt for Donaldson and proceed to sentence her to the maximum allowable sentence by law.

Upon fulfilling the sentence terms or if she’s released by the court prior to the end of her sentence, Donaldson “shall stand discharged of said offense without court adjudication of guilt and shall be completely exonerated of guilt of said offense charged.”

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Austin Stryker testifies during his November 2021 trial. In January, his lawyer filed a motion for a new trial. That motion will be heard this October. - photo by Julia Fechter

Earlier in July, an October date was also set to discuss Stryker’s motion for a new trial. 

A motion hearing will take place within Courtroom C of the Dawson County Courthouse on Oct. 25 starting at 2:30 p.m. That motion was filed in January, within 30 days of Stryker’s December sentencing. 

Motive and murder narrative 

 

Co-defendants Isaac Huff, 20, and Dylan Reid, 22, testified about their, Stryker’s and others’ involvement in a small gang called “THIS” during their joint plea and sentencing hearing and Stryker’s trial. 

Bender was killed during the early morning on Sept. 15, 2019, while riding in a Mazda pickup truck with Stryker and Huff. As the truck neared the Sweetwater Juno Road area of Dawson County, Stryker shot Bender in the head without warning, according to Huff’s testimony.

Testimony from Stryker and a GBI medical examiner who testified at his trial suggested that the gunshot may not have been immediately fatal. After shooting her, Stryker reportedly stabbed Bender at least 32 times. She was later buried in a shallow grave in North Forsyth County, where her remains were found on Sept. 25, 2019.

Before Stryker’s trial, prosecutors were successful in getting evidence introduced describing that Stryker’s motive to kill Bender was tied to his belief that she might go to police about the alleged robbery.

 

During his own testimony at Stryker’s trial, Huff said that the gang members allegedly committed armed robbery at Dollar Generals in Dawsonville and Dahlonega during summer 2019. 

Currently, charges have only been filed in Lumpkin County for the alleged armed robbery there.

 

In April 2021, Huff received a sentence of 12 years in prison and 18 years on probation for his role in covering up Bender’s murder. Reid got 20 years with 15 years on probation for the additional culpability of tampering with evidence. 

 

At the conclusion of his November 2021 trial, Stryker was found guilty of killing Bender by shooting and stabbing her and convicted on all 24 of his charges tied to her death. Then in December, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

 

 

Harper 

 

At the end of October, Jerry Harper, 81, pleaded guilty in Dawson County to multiple charges for helping Stryker evade police and approving of Bender’s murder. 

 

He admitted to racketeering activity involving a homicide, a violation of Georgia’s street gang law; hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal and a connected gang violation. Prosecutors agreed to not prosecute Harper on charges of theft of a vehicle and a connected street gang violation.

 

Then in December, Harper was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the racketeering charge and

five years for the hindering count, to be run concurrently with the previous sentence. He received 10 years of probation for the other gang violation. This last count will follow the prison time consecutively. 

In April, Harper was indicted in Forsyth County on one count each of concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence of Bender’s murder.

Per that indictment, Harper concealed Bender’s death by burying her body and concealing a Mazda truck to prevent Stryker’s arrest. Details about Harper’s participation were recounted by multiple witnesses and prosecutors during his sentencing and at Stryker’s trial. 

The lead investigator for Bender’s murder case, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Kristin Perry, recounted that Harper’s statements only had the appearance of initial cooperation, given how his words conflicted with other information and how he initially withheld some details.

During interviews, Harper told GBI agents about seeing Bender’s body in the toolbox Stryker had brought over to the property where his camper was. So, Perry said she thought Harper knew more than what he was initially saying.

According to other witnesses, Harper saw the bloody Mazda truck where Bender was killed, told Stryker to clean it up and coordinated taking the vehicle to a friend’s property to sell. At that same property, Harper was said to be present while Stryker buried Bender’s remains.

“He had no direct knowledge...yes, it’s horrible for a decent person to do. He should've known better,” said attorney John Warr of Harper, “but he chose to help them after the fact [of the murder].”

This May, Harper pleaded guilty to the two charges and was sentenced to 10 years on each count, for a collective 20 years to be served concurrent with the previous case, according to Forsyth County Superior Court records. 

Williams

 

Authorities arrested Bailey Diane Williams, 23, in October 2019 and charged her with tampering with evidence. She allegedly helped Stryker dispose of Bender’s belongings on Sept. 15, 2019, near a campground off of Nimblewill Gap Road in Lumpkin County.

Her tampering case is set for a September trial after it was previously continued.

In June 2022, Williams and Huff were accused of being parties to the alleged armed robbery of a Dahlonega Dollar General in which Stryker was also implicated, according to an indictment. Huff and Williams were allegedly present while Stryker allegedly committed armed robbery at the South Chestatee Street Dollar General on July 7, 2019.  

DCN will provide updates about the murder and armed robbery cases as more information becomes available.